Self Portrait as Bacchus2019-07-12T08:47:09+00:00

Project Description


A self-portrait of Caravaggio made during his stay at the Consolation hospital. The Bacchino malato was donated to Cardinal Scipione Borghese by Pope Paul V and, therefore, housed in the family collection.

Caravaggio, Bacchino sick, 1593-1594, oil on canvas, 67 x 53 cm. Rome, Galleria Borghese

The painting, alleged self-portrait of Caravaggio, takes the title from the skin color of the protagonist. Around 1593, the artist was admitted to the Consolation hospital, destined for the poor, due to the after-effects of a horse’s calcium.

On a rectangular plane there are some fruits, black grapes and two peaches. Beyond the stone slab is the bacchus sitting down. The body is turned to the right, with the bust and legs in profile with respect to the pictorial plane. Around the body he wears a light and light cloth, knotted at the front. The legs can be seen just as they are covered by the plane at the sight of the observer.

The right arm, instead, is completely exposed, carried forward and bent, towards the face. In the hand, the bacchus holds a bunch of white grapes. Finally, the face is turned towards the center but not completely. The gaze points to the left, down, with a thoughtful and absent expression. The lips, pale and sick, hint at a suffering smile. Around the head he wears a crown of intertwined branches and the hair is covered by many ivy leaves that descend towards the back. The background is two-dimensional and dark.

Historians support the thesis of the self-portrait confirmed by the fact that Caravaggio was really ill during the painting. According to a careful interpretation that takes into account the moment and the references to the figure of Christ, it has been hypothesized that the work may represent the resurrection from the illness that struck Caravaggio. In fact, grapes, in Christian iconography, represent the passion of Christ.

The painting was probably made using a mirror, a technique commonly used by Caravaggio. In the apprenticeship period at the Cavalier d ‘Arpino, a few months between 1592 and 1593, the artist dealt, in fact, with portraits and still lifes. One of his main interests was the careful observation of reality to obtain greater pictorial naturalism. This aspiration is observed in the signs of corruption of the fruit and the sick face of the bacchus. In fact, the works of this period, called the “clear period”, are characterized by portraits of street children, self-portraits and fruit, partly faulty, rejected by the markets and by the taverns.

The dark background clearly highlights the diseased Bacchus without creating, however, strong chiaroscuro contrasts. The figure of the character is lit up entirely like the piano and the fruit resting on it. The complexion of the bacchus tends to ocher while the lips have a dull and purpleish color. The fruit, instead, is painted with saturated colors, although limited to the pale yellow of the peaches and to the typical colors of the dark and light grapes of the grapes, in black and yellow-green.

The figure is depicted a few centimeters from the top of the work, separated, in fact, only by the stone top. The space beyond the bacchus, therefore, is not perceptible due to the very dark background.

The frame completely frames the seated and leaning forward character. His figure is painted entirely and circumscribed by the black background that highlights it. Finally, the composition uses an oblique directrix that rises from the fruit on the right, downwards, towards the face of the Bacchino.

The ill Bacchus was made by Caravaggio during his apprenticeship with Giuseppe Cesari known as Cavalier d´Arpino. In this period the artist created still lifes and genre scenes. Among these is the Boy with Fruit Basket which is also kept at the Borghese Gallery. The two paintings, present in the workshop of the Cavalier d ‘Arpino, were seized, in 1607, by Paolo V for tax reasons. Later he was donated to his nephew by Cardinal Scipione Caffarelli-Borghese, a great collector.

Click here to book your Borghese Gallery tickets or here to book a Borghese Gallery tour